Israel’s Food Industry Is Learning How to Eat Better

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The Israeli stomach seems to have become sensitive these past few years, irritated by any food rich in fat, fried, meaty, made from white flour or sprayed before harvesting.

And the food industry is adapting to new tastes. The supermarkets are making room on the shelves for gluten-free rolls, offbeat legumes, organic products and whole wheat pastas that were once available at specialty stores for the true diehards. Cafes have also gotten the message that the way to the heart of the hip client is through a thick screen of health foods — starting from low-calorie servings and onward to vegetarian menus and vegan dishes.

"In the past month we've opened a section for gluten-free items," says Rami Levy, controlling shareholder of the Rami Levy Hashikma marketing chain, not the type of store expected to raise the health food flag. But apparently such consumers, whether by choice or due to gluten sensitivity, are no longer a niche market that can be ignored. "I’ve received many requests for such products, which in other chains are very expensive — so we widened the variety," he says.

Between 5% and 8% of the country’s population now uses gluten-free products, according to Levy. But the strongest trend in the world of health food is currently veganism, which his stores are still working to adapt to. Super-Sol and Mega, whose parent company Blue Square also operates the Eden Teva Market chain, have long seen which way the wind is blowing. Two years ago Super-Sol bought the Organic Market chain and maintains separate sections in its regular stores for organic foods.

Schnitzel rules

It is hard to estimate how much the market has developed in recent years around the new nutrition trends and how much money is being generated — this is difficult to quantify because the supermarket chains do not produce a breakdown of data on purchases by health-conscious customers. Among the most basic and prominent fast-growing health food categories are the milk substitutes. "Over the past four years the milk-substitute category has undergone considerable change, both from the perspective of manufacturers and retailers and the outlook of consumers," says Dana Avshalom, marketing manager for the food and health division at Schestowitz, the Israeli importer of Alpro.

Alpro recently expanded its milk-substitute product line with two beverages, an almond and a hazelnut drink each featuring a long list of health benefits, following the debut of a rice drink in May.

In the U.S. market the category has seen double-digit growth for the past three years, explains Avshalom. In Israel, in the first half the year the category grew 22% from the same time last year, a trend she says is likely to continue. Milk substitutes rang up NIS 35 million in sales in the first half, according to the consumer product research firm StoreNext. Dominating the market is Tnuva with a 51% share, followed by Alpro with 30%.

Another measure of current eating trends is the popularity of meat substitutes. According to StoreNext, meat substitutes generate annual sales of NIS 254 million with 61% in the form vegetarian schnitzel-style cutlets — 74% of that made from corn.

Meat-substitute products are suitable for vegetarians but not vegans because they are made with eggs, according to Orit Valent-Michaeli, marketing manager at Soglowek Foods, but in any case are mainly directed toward children. "We are continuously evaluating the market and have plans to target other groups by highlighting the added nutritional values," she says. "Veganism and vegetarianism encompass just 5% of the market, so our expansion isn't necessarily toward veganism."

Healthy cafes

Cafe chains are another battleground for the stomachs of consumers looking for healthy eating. More and more menu items are devoted to vegans, vegetarians and gluten abstainers, pushing aside servings rich in fats and carbohydrates.

At Aroma’s 125 cafes, diners are offered brochures with health tips and calorie counts as part of a recently launched “Aroma Wingate” program in collaboration with the Wingate Institute. Israel's main center for physical education, Wingate puts its seal of approval on menu items with up to 550 calories, four milliliters or less of sodium per 100 grams, 6% or less fat and containing at least three vegetables.

Only 25% of the chain's customers ask for sandwiches on white bread, with 75% preferring light bread, whole wheat or rye, says Yair Marinov, Aroma’s vice-president for marketing.

But Aroma certainly isn't alone. Every chain we asked was happy to tell us how it's joining the nutritional trend.

"We decided not to do it on an ad-hoc basis but in a proper fashion," explains Noam Zimerman, CEO of the Café Café chain. At its 130 branches, the chain observes the international "Meatless Monday" campaign championed in Israel by TV celebrity Miki Haimovich.

Café Café also came up with three specialty servings — lentil patties, pumpkin and eggplant schnitzel on mashed potato, and half-baked half-fried gnocchi. "These are, for all purposes, restaurant portions that we present customers with every Monday along with a short explanation," Zimerman says, conceding that the campaign hasn't generated much additional traffic. Nonetheless, more new recipes are being introduced.

Keeping up-to-date nutritionally is a necessity but must be kept in perspective. The overwhelming majority of customers remain loyal to their traditional eating habits and the newfangled servings are usually greeted with curiosity, if not suspicion.

Vegan seal of approval

The Café Greg chain recently introduced an entire vegan menu with 11 items at its 90 outlets, including many legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables, herbs, and avocado and tahini oils, as well as gluten-free breads and cookies. In the past year and a half there's been a 30% to 40% increase in demand for vegan dishes, claims Mili Dror, marketing manager for the chain. "So we decided to take up the challenge. The vegan menu has been in the chain for three months and is selling much better than expected," she says.

In this case the process has been backed by the Vegan Friendly association set up last summer, which now provides restaurants serving vegan meals certification after inspections by its members. "We'll shortly receive window stickers from Vegan Friendly after they confirm that we meet their requirements," says Dror.

The chain has invested NIS 500,000 for the move, including staff training, introducing new ingredients into its kitchens and buying new dishes.

Café Greg isn't the only chain that has asked for certification by Vegan Friendly. In the year since it was established, 250 restaurants and cafes belonging to 110 businesses have won its seal of approval. "We don’t approach anyone. These are businesses that come to us, businesses throughout the country from north to south," says Omri Paz, head of the association.

While established chains are adapting to the trend, new businesses are sprouting aimed directly at the vegan market. For example, Fresh Kitchen, founded five years ago, now boasts nine branches. "We started the chain with the understanding that the world of cafes is changing, and the clientele is starting to become aware of every bit of food entering their body," says Nir Kodish, one of the proprietors.

The chain's recipes cater to people abstaining from gluten, vegetarians, vegans, athletes and pregnant women, among others. "People have the perception that healthy food isn't tasty," says Kodish. "We are trying to give a certain twist — an added value."

A supermarket produce section.Credit: Eyal Toueg